Every designer knows Stefan Sagmeister. He carved type into his own flesh, for a poster design. He allows anyone peer directly into his studio, day or night. He goes on sabbatical every 7 years (he manages the cost by offsetting his retirement). And he created an exhibit focused on happiness. Some dismiss his work as gimmicky, but that’s a reductive viewpoint. I suspect the truth is that his work/thinking is so iconic the rest of us meat-and-potatoes designers are jealous.
Sagmeister doesn’t try to design things that look like design. He seems to ignore what everyone else is doing and instead concentrates on making his work surprising. This is notable because most (regardless of profession) only try to be as good as everyone else. This is fine when you’re learning (we all learn through imitation at some point). But, there’s a time when copying others is no longer useful in one’s development.
The question you should ask, is: Why do so many willingly make work that only meets the bar? An excuse is easy. The most common one is something like: “I could do stuff like Sagmeister, if I had clients like his.” My hunch is that your clients are like his, though. The difference is that he learned to convince these people to take a risk with one of his ideas. That’s a notable skill, which few talk about. Making something innovative is one thing. To get past the bar, though, you also need to persuade others to take a chance on what you’re doing.
Sagmeister isn’t the only maker who goes past the bar. Henry Darger created a 15,000 page book, and later a 10,000 page one, both of which went unseen until after his death. Vivian Maier obsessively documented her world in over 100,000 photographs. (She too never bothered to show anyone.) René Redzepi redefined Nordic cuisine, even incorporating ants and live shrimp in his meals. Look back at any notable works you’ll see that their creators did something that most others at the time deemed nutty.
For most people, the bar is a an outer limit. Even if they reach it, they’re unlikely to go much further. Why? Because humans priority novelty, praise, and comfort, over discovery. There’s no reason you can’t make something notable—or even groundbreaking. However, you need to put off other exploration to go that deep. You must be ready for people to dismiss your obsession. And you might have to put off watching Stranger Things (or whatever else everyone else is enjoying).
History contains a number of examples of those who pushed the bar. Once they did, others quickly followed suit and expanded on this work. The GUI was adopted universally, after PARC created it. Once Alan Gelfand invented the ollie, others soon founds ways to build on it. And, when Jimi Hendrix played with his teeth, and lit his guitar on fire, he cracked open how the instrument was played. None of these achievements were un-doable for others; but these advances couldn’t be achieved by those only tried to meet the bar.
The problem with the bar is that it is often confused for an impenetrable wall. Everything within its boundaries is deemed possible; and all that’s outside of it is considered off-limits or unimaginable. So, most don’t even bother trying. Instead, they look for examples on this side of the (perceived) wall and make incremental variations on what already exists. In business/marketing, this involves identifying the market leader and attempting to make minor improvements on their tactics.
Most will do just this—because no one gets in trouble for copying a winner. That said, few ever become winners by copying, either. So, I end this post with an alternate path that you are free to take, should you choose.
I know you want to make something meaningful. You wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t. I also know you sometimes wonder why no one’s paying attention to what you make. At one point or another, we all experience the same. I can’t definitively say what’s holding you back—but for many it’s the bar.
What you must remember is that there is no bar. There is no wall that separates what you are allowed to do and what you are not. This obstacle is entirely a figment of your imagination—something that solely exists in your mind.
Today, I ask you to stop looking at what your peers are doing. I ask you to ignore your competition. I ask you to instead question what you could do to amplify your work, in a way that no one else would even think to do.
If you are writing a book, perhaps you can conduct an “interview” with every character in the universe you’re creating. If you are building a community, you might commit to learning something about every member in it—and personally assisting them. If you’re thinking of releasing an album, perhaps you’ll challenge yourself to write, record, and release one new song a day. If you’re making your own beer, you might experiment with infusing yours with turnips, garlic, or kimchi. And if you’re trying to create an app that connects people, maybe you could create an interface that doesn’t require the use of a screen.
Maybe these ideas are crazy. Maybe they won’t work. Maybe people will laugh at you for trying. However, it’s in the act of doing what others won’t that you might achieve a breakthrough. Still struggling with your idea? Book me on Officehours, and I can help.
Want more? Check out the full list of articles, learn about this blog, or grab a book. Here’s what I’m doing now, and what I don’t do. I hold free weekly office hours. Alternatively, you can hire me for more involved engagements, via smashLAB.